In his ThrillerFest session “Off on the Right Foot—When to Outline and When to Write,” T. Jefferson Parker (author of the Charlie Hood series) detailed the ins and outs of his personal writing process.
“It’s just my system, and I know a lot of writers who work quite differently than I do,” he told the audience. “Take from me whatever rings true in your heart and your head, and dismiss the rest.”
After all, Parker said, there’s no single definitive way to write a novel—it’s one of the loosest art forms there is.
Might any elements of his process work for you?
“I like to think of the planning and writing of a book as a road trip,” he said. It takes Parker 365 days to write a book—making it a yearlong voyage.
When Parker is ready, he sits down and writes a letter to himself. He documents what he’s interested in. (His personal method for keeping track of the things that strike his fancy: He maintains a clip file in a big plastic bin—even if what he’s setting aside doesn’t seem to have anything to do with any given book he may write).
He pulls from notebooks, notes on his computer, dreams, imagination, and puts it all into his letter. At this stage, Parker said, he’s forming the route for his road trip. He organizes and prioritizes. (Parker said one of his friends describes the process this way: “It’s like you’re planning the ultimate vacation, and budget is not a factor.”)
He then asks himself: Who are the companions? Who are you going to take your road trip with? Protagonists and antagonists must be fleshed out, followed by a supporting cast. “If you’re figuring on a 365-day road rip, that’s a long time, so choose carefully,” he said. Ensure your characters are strong, strong-willed and memorable.
Then, listen. Listen to your characters—to the way they talk. To their desires. Each one will try to make themselves the focus of the story. “Listen to these voices and sort of figure out where they want to go. Listen, listen, listen, listen.”
After a while, Parker said, he gets tired of the cacophony and silences everyone. He needs his destination. So he seeks a quiet place within himself, and attempts to fashion a description of the story in 24 words or fewer.
He even got his last book down to 10 words: “A lawman tries to protect a newborn from a devil.”
(He stressed that this description really has to fire up your imagination and ring true—because it’s what’s going to get you through the next 365 days of your road trip with your characters.)
With his destination set, Parker is ready to go. The left brain has done its work, and primed the right brain to take over.
“You’ll know in your heart when you’re ready to write,” he said.
All told, Parker said he spends about three months outlining (the letter, etc.), he writes his first draft in about six months, and then it takes him another three months “to clean up the mess.”
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